What Works to Turn Out Voters?
Research finds same-day voter registration and vote by mail to be the most effective strategies. Robo-calls? Not so much.
Despite the all-consuming attention paid to presidential elections, U.S. voter turnout is among the worst in the world compared to other advanced economies. The Pew Research Center reports that America ranks near the bottom among the countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (31st out of 34), behind such places as Turkey, Slovakia and Poland.
States have launched a variety of experiments to increase voter turnout, such as same-day voter registration, robo-calls and vote by mail (see Vote from Home, Save Your Country). And since 1996, voter turnout in presidential elections has risen slightly, from 58.4 percent in 1996 to 61.8 percent in 2012.
Recently, the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report comprehensively surveying the research on the impacts of state policies to increase voter participation. Here’s what the GAO concluded are the strategies that work best:
- Most effective: Same-day voter registration and vote by mail
The GAO’s review found the strongest evidence in support of same-day voter registration — now available in 13 states and the District of Columbia — as a way to increase voter turnout. In 21 out of 33 studies surveyed by the GAO, allowing voters to register on Election Day resulted in positive impacts on turnout, ranging from 2 percent to as high as 8.7 percent.
Strong evidence also supports vote-by-mail, which 22 states have adopted. Three states — Washington, Oregon and Colorado — conduct all elections by mail. Studies of Oregon’s transition to vote-by-mail in 1998 found dramatic increases in turnout early on, followed by smaller gains later. The biggest impact in Oregon was on lower-profile special elections and primaries, where turnout rose by as much 15.5 percent in the early years of the effort.
- Potentially effective: Voting centers, texts and extended voting hours
Five out of six studies reviewed by the GAO found that voting centers (places where people can vote regardless of which precinct they belong to) can help increase turnout by between 1.4% to 2.6%. According to the Pew Research Center, 10 states now authorize voting centers for some or all elections, including Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia and Iowa.
Also found to be effective (but for which there’s less evidence) is sending texts to voters the day before Election Day. One study found that a simple text reminder could increase turnout by as much as 3 percentage points. Extending voting hours from before 7 a.m. to after 7 p.m. can also help, although the impact is not as significant. In the studies reviewed by the GAO, longer voting hours increased turnout by about 1% to 1.7%.
Disappointing: Early in-person voting, emails, mailings and robocalls
While text messages might work to prompt voters to go to the polls, emails, snail mail and robo-calls do not. In 15 out of 18 studies that examined the effectiveness of email reminders, there was no evidence of any impact. The vast majority of studies that looked at postcards mailed to voters pre-Election Day also found them to be ineffective, as did the studies examining the effect of robo-calls.
Also disappointing was in-person early voting, available in 37 states. According to the GAO, most of the studies that looked at early voting concluded that the policy had either no impact on turnout or even decreased participation.
What’s clear from the GAO review of voter turnout strategies is that there is no silver bullet for encouraging more citizens to vote. Moreover, as the GAO points out, administrative obstacles (unless intentionally put there) aren’t the reason Americans don’t vote:
[I]ndividual and demographic differences among populations — such as political interest and age — and the competitiveness of elections are more strongly and consistently associated with the decision to vote than interventions that seek to make voting more convenient, and thus less costly, to voters.
While states should pursue the administrative fixes proven to work, America’s voter turnout problem is also one that demands much broader reforms.
Originally published at washingtonmonthly.com on July 7, 2016.